Feb 1, 2018

"And brother, can she write" --- book review of "Need to know" by Karen Cleveland

We get an email from John Grisham, the author, who talks about the "heady days" of his breakthrough novel, "The Firm," and about Karen Cleveland's firstling, the spy novel "Need to Know", which is apparently poised to mirror his own success.

Since we're wondering increasingly what makes a successful book of fiction, we push the Amazon button and download Cleveland's ebook.

The best thing about the book is the motto, taken from Oscar Wilde:
When one is in love, one always begins by deceiving one's self, and one always ends by deceiving others. That is what the world calls a romance.
Not the best thing about the book is its implicit promise of authenticity. The author is herself a counter-intelligence (CI) expert with the CIA, and so one would expect her tome to convey something of an insider's view of modern spying. Well, to the extent that it does, Cleveland's profession has gone the way of most other occupations: workers and co-workers are couched in cubicles where they stare at computer screens when they don't spy on each other or drive home to collect offspring from overpriced private schools that charge five dollars per child per minute of pickup delay. And after a sexless night (Goodreads reviewers have congratulated themselves on the fact that there is no sex in the book) she kisses her husband ("Matt") goodbye and is back to Langley where she---in this age of algorithms---has been developing her own ALGORITHM, a program that's supposed to filter Russian spies from the rest of the population. Even better, her task is accomplished and today's the day to put her invention to work. She hits a few keyboard buttons and there he appears on the screen, her first Russian spy, and it is---spoiler alert---her husband, Matt.

(Just a thought: Wouldn't it have been nice for Vivian to tell us a bit more about her algorithm, like, say, Herman Melville told us a bit more about Pequod, the vessel of Ahab's pursuit of Moby Dick? Or Q told us a bit more about the poisonous pens that enlivened James Bond's life?)
Anyhow, Vivian is upset. There's "a niggling voice in [her] head" that segues into "a wave of nausea starting to churn deep in [her] stomach." She returns home where she confronts her husband. "Twenty-two years," he informs her, he's a spy since 22 years. Vivian is "falling, floating, suspended in some space where I'm watching myself, watching this unfold, but I'm not part of it, because it's not real. There's a ringing in my ears, a strange tinny sound."
(Just a thought: This is not a spy novel, this is the novel of an author who goes by the book: "TELL, DON'T SHOW, ESPECIALLY WHEN IT COMES TO YOUR MOST PREDICTABLE FEELINGS.") 
Matt now explains that he was born in Russia, orphaned, picked from the gutter by Putin's men and sent to spy school. "A shiver runs through [Vivian] at his touch."

By now we are only at 15% of the text, so Vivian has to showcase her feelings a bit more. "I feel numb. This can't be happening," (still at 15%). "Tears sting my eyelids" (16%). "Everything looks so normal, and it hurts to see it" (16%). "Matt's in the kitchen, washing dishes in the sink" (they don't seem to have a dish washer). "Why didn't you tell me," she asks, and he answers: "I couldn't." (17%). "He buries his head in the space between my neck and shoulder. [...] A shiver runs through me." (18%) (again). Matt has a handler, he informs us, with whom he communicates by dead drops under a bench in the park.
(Just a thought: This is spying in the 21st century? Dead drops under park benches? And this "tinny sound," four paragraphs above? I think she made that up.)
Next morning, Vivian returns to work and makes the mistake of erasing Matt's picture from the server record---like, like accomplished algorithm developers that we are, we've never heard of something like an activity log---thus entangling herself in the Russian web of treachery and treason. The next 65% of the text keep Vivian busy untangling herself ("Panic courses through me" (24%),  "Guilt washes over me" (25%), "A chill ran through me" (31%), "I feel like I've been punched in the gut" (33%), "My mind is racing" (33%), "Disbelief courses through me" (34%), "My chest feels tight" (34%), "A heaviness is settling down around me. A darkness" (36%). "Disbelief courses through me" (again) (36%), "my heart [is] aching" (41%), "Emotions well up inside me," (41%)...Skip forward: "Rage simmers inside me (80%).

No need for more spoiler alerts: there's a happy ending with some escapist features---possibly the reason why John Grisham liked the book, whose own thrillers often lead up to an escapist panancea. Or, he really believes what he said about Karen Cleveland: "And brother, can she write."

This must be it, folks, the secret of successful writing, the excessive use of phrasal verbs. "A shiver runs through me."  "Rage simmers inside me." You say.


Perry Brass said...

I always say about commercial writing, and basically in American publishing, that is just about all we have now: "The worse you are, the better you do." I am incapable of reading a John Grisham novel. It is a handicap; I know it. But it is the truth. Actually, they make good movies—another truism is that. the worse a book is, the better the movie potential. Some really dreck books have made some good movies, which often outlive their original material. Case in point: James M. Cain, "The Postman Always Rings Twice," "Mildred Pierce," among others. Cain was never God's gift to fiction, he was decent journeyman writer, but from him came some great flicks.

Unknown said...

This post is ringing a bell...methinks there is a Netflicks series with this plot...or one close to it. I'm thinking it stars James Spader and it is called, wait, one Google moment, Blacklist. Spader is very good in it but the female lead, an FBI profiler, is not so. Spader does not play the husband but he's a bad guy...something such as #1 wanted or so. And he is the INTERESTING character in the story. Not the American good person. Been a few years but most of the above is accurate...

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